Packaging Research: Background to Packaging
According to the World Packaging Organisation (WPO), globally the packaging material and machinery industry is estimated to be worth $US 500 billion per year, representing between 1-2% of the GDP in industrialised countries. An estimated 100,000 packaging manufacturing companies employ in excess of 5 million people and, in principle, serve all business sectors manufacturing and/or trading physical products.
Packaging technology has gone through a fast and significant development in recent decades, however the smartest developments are yet to be seen. Today's modern society depends to a large extend on the availability and use of modern packaging technology, comprising a vast variety of modern materials, high tech applications and smart operations. Modern packaging technology aims to meet a vast range of requirements ranging from providing food safety, via low cost storage and distribution, self-selling marketing, convenient consumer use to responsible waste management practices.
Thanks to modern packaging technology products can be economically distributed over large geographical areas or stored over time without unacceptable quality loss. Packaging is more than a clever way of combining materials. Adding value through the development of partnership relations in the supply chain seems to be the credo for the next decennium. Good packaging facilitates a subtle cooperation between product, packaging process and material with the objective of fulfilling needs of all stakeholders along the supply chain including the post-consumer waste manager.
Value chain management, product stewardship and life cycle management are considered key attributes that will drive the development of future, sustainable packaging systems. Such systems will need to go far beyond the current waste minimisation driven principles of reduce, re-use, recycle, and recovery. Packaging systems that will minimise impact on the environment, will seamlessly meet social requirements and expectations, and will be economically effective are the business winners of the future.
Today's companies in the packaging supply chain are faced with acknowledging, understanding, addressing and managing a range of issues affecting the sustainable use of packaging. Issues include the use of renewable and non-renewable resources, recyclability, regulations, and material and transport costs. Ongoing demographic and life-style changes, technology changes, environmental issues (in particular as recognised by legislation and/or voluntary agreements in numerous countries), consumer dynamics, and supply chain demands are important factors of influence for the packaging supply chain. Adequately responding to such issues requires pro-activity, progressivism and agility from packaging manufacturers as well as users.
Despite the industry becoming more progressive and pro-active in its approach and seeking shared responsibility, the majority of the actions are still undertaken on the basis of the traditional 4-R waste management hierarchy (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Recover, Dispose) rather then evaluating and assessing the life cycle impacts and developing strategies to reduce impact. As a result 'down gauging' and 'recyclability' are still the main drivers in avoiding environmental impact.
There is little doubt that this approach will lead to a reduction of impacts
in the short term. It may take the existing 'waste fat' out of
current packaging systems but does not take into account the need to reduce
overall environmental impacts in a substantial way. It also fails to address
the increasing need for packaging systems that meet requirements from new
distribution systems, increasing demands for product convenience, increasing
consumer differentiation and so on.
In the longer term this approach will not be sufficient and will fail to provide adequate solutions. Numerous problem areas will emerge that will require a rigorous overhaul of the use of packaging systems in order to meet ongoing commercial demands.
Particularly for fast moving consumer goods, such as food products, the packaging is one of the key product components that can provide a commercial advantage over competing products. Hence, the packaging is of significant commercial importance for the economical sustainability and growth of businesses. There is little value in arguing the need for less packaging while economic growth is predominantly driven by diversification of markets and subsequent product variations. Key challenges for future business growth and development are:
- The ability to meet supply chain and market requirements in terms of distribution efficiency, marketing power, consumer safety and convenience, and environmental performance;
- To maintain high levels of flexibility for creating commercial advantage through value added packaging systems;
- To maximise the triple bottom line performance in order to satisfy both commercial stakeholders (shareholders, customers) and community stakeholders (government, consumers, NGOs);
These challenges cannot be successfully tackled with the traditional 4-R approach. A holistic, integrated and collaborative initiative involving the entire supply chain is essential to be able to create step change improvements. The focus should not be on how the supply chain can reduce the amount and increase the recycling of packaging used but on how it can sustainable satisfy the economic, social and environmental requirements for packaging related to the production, distribution and consumption of products in order to further enhance the well-being of our society.
Of course, in principle a packaging (system) is just a clever way of constructing a container out of a selected material or combination of materials. A wide variety and choice is available, and selection is not an easy job.
A range of parameters, varying from product characteristics to consumer (client) requirements and trends, affect this selection. These parameters can be grouped in three categories as is illustrated in figure 1:
- Parameters in the micro or product environment
- Parameters in the ambient or distribution environment, and
- Parameters in the macro or market environment
The parameters in the macro environment are constantly subject to change and have, to a certain extend, an effect on the ambient environment (e.g. a change in distribution method can have an impact on mechanical impacts exerted on the packaging system).
Because of this dynamic environment, packaging systems are continuously due to optimisation, a permanent search for the optimum between functionality and cost. This value analysis includes relating the packaging system's technical, economical and environmental performance to requirements from product, manufacturing and packaging process, warehousing and distribution, retailing and marketing operations, consumer demands and behaviour, and post-consumer waste management.
Meeting this complex of varying and often opposing demands is obviously not an easy task and requires a thorough understanding of issues involved and ability to balance them in anticipation on the pull of a changing market. Packaging research and education can and will support the packaging chain in their efforts to evaluate the complexity of demands and create adequate solutions. Packaging Research
Research in the packaging area can principally be distinguished into three main areas:
- Strategic Research
- Applied Research
- Fundamental Research
Strategic research has a focus for new approaches in the packaging domain. It aims at identifying new pathways for advancing the future of packaging. Strategic research is essential to identify and understand future issues, to identify potential solutions (being it technological, organisational or managerial), and to design routes for implementation.
The packaging domain cannot advance without a substantial strategic research being undertaken. As in every other discipline novel approaches are essential to achieve effective future packaging solutions. However, the extensive complexity of the field due to its multi-disciplinarity and material variety, its range of stakeholders, and its broad mix of functions, makes strategic research indispensable for the packaging domain.
On an individual member basis and, even more relevant, by collaboration
between members, IAPRI is well positioned to undertake this type of research.
By combining academic with industry focussed research strengths, IAPRI is
able to provide unique sets of research skills to assist both industry and
government stakeholders in the strategic advancement of packaging.
Applied research is considered the historical scene of packaging research and has often focussed on specific problems concerning packaging intensive products. The challenge ahead lies in the conversion of disciplinary and/or technological advances achieved in other areas (e.g. microelectronics) to the packaging field. Particularly in advancing packaging towards active, smart and intelligent systems able to interact at different points and with various stakeholders along the supply chain, significant applied research is required.
Often this type of research involves development of 'proof of concept' and 'route to market' and is therefore likely to be undertaken in close cooperation with commercial entities. Most IAPRI member organisations are well experienced in conducting this type of research. However, each member will have limitations in its scope of research for which reason collaboration between two of more members might be preferable to cover a particular applied research project.
Fundamental research focuses on developing the underlying sciences for packaging material applications and technologies. This area belongs historically to the discipline areas. Fundamental research in the packaging domain historically has focussed on understanding material and packaging system behaviour. Interaction of packaging materials in contact with product (e.g. food or dangerous good) is an example of such research. Mathematical modelling of the dynamic behaviour of packaging cushioning materials is another example.
Fundamental research is often the domain of research students and is an important part of generating research staff for packaging research organisations. Most IAPRI members, being either University entities or having collaborative links with relevant university entities, are involved in this kind of research.